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How moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem could threaten peace prospects

President Trump signaled Tuesday that he is on the verge of a major announcement, calling Middle East leaders to tell them he's considering moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem -- a move to that could cause unrest. Judy Woodruff gets reaction from David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump signaled today he is on the verge of a major announcement regarding a crucial U.S. ally.

    Mr. Trump called leaders around the Middle East today to tell them he's considering moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing the holy city as Israel's capital. Jerusalem is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. The status of the city is seen as a key element in any final peace agreement between the two peoples.

    A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a statement today said that Abbas had warned of the — quote — "dangerous consequences such a decision would have to the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and the world."

    King Abdullah of Jordan and the Saudi government also warned of unrest if the embassy is moved.

    Joining me for more on all this, David Makovsky. He was a senior policy adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry's peace team for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during 2013 and 2014, and he is a long-serving fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Shibley Telhami, he is the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland.

    And we welcome both of you back to the program.

    I'm going to start with you, Shibley Telhami.

    If this goes ahead, if this happens, as it looks like it will, how big a departure is this from previous U.S. presidents?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Well, it's huge.

    It's huge historically, because not only has the U.S. not recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but really historically the international community has seen Jerusalem as very different. In fact, even West Jerusalem wasn't recognized by the U.S., in part because there was some international status and vision for Jerusalem historically.

    Now, things have changed over the years. The most important issue is really the consequences — put aside the departure — in terms of why the administration is doing this.

    There's no one in the world who is arguing this would be helpful to American foreign policy, not even the White House. And the only argument that is being made is, how bad is it going to be? Is it going to be terrible? Is it going to be tolerable? So, why in the world are they doing it?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will get to that.

    But, David Makovsky, how is this going to be received in Israel, if that is what the president does?

  • David Makovsky:

    Well, look, they will clearly be thrilled in Israel. There is no doubt.

    It looks like, from what I hear from the White House, that they're moving both on recognition and they have got an exploratory team for more land purchases in West Jerusalem.

    Look, Israelis, the way they see it is, this as an historic injustice, that even if the Palestinians get 100 percent of what they would like in any peace deal, it doesn't impact West Jerusalem, and the U.S. has been doing business in West Jerusalem since its capital was there in 1949.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But is this something Israelis wanted and expected? And we know they wanted it. Did they expect to get it?

  • David Makovsky:

    I don't know if they expect it.

    There clearly is no doubt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pressed hard for this. He feels he has got very close relations with President Trump. So, this has been high up on his priority list.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When you say, Shibley Telhami, that no one in the area wanted this to happen, how are they going to react?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Well, you know, first of all, let's remember that the administration is supposedly working on the deal of the century, which, of course, everybody understands is going to be more complicated than they even imagine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Between the Israelis and the…

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Between the Israelis the Palestinians. They want to put a peace deal on.

    So, most people were worried that, if the deal collapses, which probably they were expecting to happen, then the president would move the embassy to Jerusalem. No one expected that he would do this before he even offers ideas, which will make it harder for him to sell anything at all.

    Now, what are the consequences? Of course, I think the White House thinks that there is not much, because I think people believe that Arab leaders pay only lip service to this issue. They think Arab public opinion doesn't matter anymore. They think Palestine is no longer a priority for the Arabs, and they are going to measure this by how many people go out on the streets.

    That would be a mistake, because the history of the Jerusalem issue, that it mobilizes. Even Clinton underestimated it, and it derailed the Camp David accords.

    If you look at American priorities, the president says he's confronting Iran's influence and he's confronting Islamic militancy. This issue plays into the hands America's enemies in the Middle East.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see it?

  • David Makovsky:

    Look, I think — I agree with a good part of what Shibley said.

    I think it's crucial what the president actually says tomorrow. From what I'm hearing, he is going to say that whatever the U.S. does should not prejudge final status. If he says that West Jerusalem, in other words, part of Jerusalem, is, you know, Israel's capital, that's just acknowledging a fact that's been true since 1949.

    And we will be ending the fiction that we have not — that we have been a part of. So I think, but if — I would agree with Shibley, actually, if he says, I have therefore said that all sovereignty of the entire city should go to Israel, it will lead to an explosion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Including East Jerusalem.

  • David Makovsky:

    Including East Jerusalem. It could lead to a huge explosion.

    In other words, the political messaging here is going to be crucial. People have asked, is President Trump capable of walking a fine line of acknowledging a certain reality on one hand, but saying he doesn't want to prejudge East Jerusalem?

    If he can draw that, I think it's OK. But the messaging is going to be crucial, and that is — wait to be seen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you agree there's going to be that much — that it matters that much whether he makes that distinction between all of Jerusalem or just East?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    It matters a little bit, for sure, but not enough.

    People are not going to see the nuance in the Arab world and Muslim world. Rulers will try to interpret it that way, but it is going to hurt them a lot. The question again, you know, when you say, OK, it's not going to hurt a lot, it's going to hurt a little, so why do it?

    What is driving the president to do it? There is no pressure on him from the Israelis. There is no pressure on him from the Arab world. It doesn't advance America's ends in the Middle East. So, why is he doing it?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why do you think he's doing it?

  • David Makovsky:

    Look, this is a president who kind of revels in the fact that he's going to be different from all of his predecessors. Everyone said — every predecessor said, I'm going to move the embassy to Jerusalem and didn't do it.

    He's going to show he's different. I think there — I agree that — I mean, there is an element of also his domestic base that's clearly been agitating in this direction. I think also, frankly, the UNESCO votes, the U.N. General Assembly votes recently, which said that the holy sites are only Muslim and they're not both Muslim and Jewish, I think these are all pieces to it.

    But this is a president who revels in the fact that, I'm not going to do what my predecessors have done.

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Well, on the pressure domestically, of course, this is a president who caters to his base, no doubt.

    But here's the thing. We just did a poll. And 63 percent of all Americans don't want the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem, including 44 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of evangelicals.

    They're not pushing him. And people think he's already very pro-Israel; 66 percent of evangelicals think he's leaning toward Israel. A majority of all Americans think he's leaning toward Israel, even though a majority of Americans want the U.S. to be neutral on this issue.

    So it is hard to understand even from the point of view of his base who is pushing him in that direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bottom line, David Makovsky, does this help matters in the region or hurt?

  • David Makovsky:

    I think, if he doesn't draw the key distinction, I agree with Shibley, it could be a death blow for his peace efforts.

    If he draws the distinction and hammers it home in Arab media time and time again what this is and what this is not, this is not about accepting Israeli sovereignty everywhere, if he draws that distinction, I think that people will see it in a better light.

    If he doesn't draw the distinction, I think his peace plan could be dead on arrival.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Shibley Telhami:

    I don't see an upside. That's why I'm left to believe that maybe the administration has already given up on making peace, and they think this will enable them to blame someone else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will find out more tomorrow.

    Shibley Telhami, David Makovsky, thank you, as always.

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